Thermodynamic calculations provide the means to quantify the chemical disequilibrium inherent in the mixing of redeuced hydrothermal fluids with seawater. The chemical energy available for metabolic processes in these environments can be evaluated by taking into account the pressure and temperature dependence of the apparent standard Gibbs free energies of reactions in the S-H2-H2O system together with geochemical constraints on pH, activities of aqueous sulfur species and fugacities of H2 and/or O2. Using present-day mixing of hydrothermal fluids and seawater as a starting point, it is shown that each mole of H2S entering seawater from hydrothermal fluids represents about 200,000 calories of chemical energy for metabolic systems able to catalyze H2S oxidation. Extrapolating to the early Earth, which was likely to have had an atmosphere more reduced than at present, shows that this chemical energy may have been a factor of two or so less. Nevertheless, mixing of hydrothermal fluids with seawater would have been an abundant source of chemical energy, and an inevitable consequence of the presence of an ocean on an initially hot Earth. The amount of energy available was more than enough for organic synthesis from CO2 or CO, and/or polymer formation, indicating that the vicinity of hydrothermal systems at the sea floor was an ideal location for the emergence of the first chemolithoautotrophic metabolic systems.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Space and Planetary Science